Just because you make a great product doesn’t mean you’ll be spared the growing pains of developing a brand. That’s something Robert Godin found out when he first started exporting his Norman acoustic guitars in the 1970s.
Those guitars happened to share a name with a television clown of the era (Norman Gunston) and were simply never taken seriously in the English-speaking world. It took the name Seagull to eventually make them popular.
“Every market is different. If I launched “Mouette” guitars here in Quebec, it would have been a disaster!” laughs the guitar maker who, for a long while, manufactured instruments for other brands before launching his celebrated line of electric guitars in 1987. “This time, every one told me to put my name on them. And it’s become a kind of badge of honour among American guitarists to use the correct French pronunciation when they say the name.”
Mostly, it’s been Godin’s talent for innovation and his taste for the authentic that have garnered the respect of guitarists the world over.
His first big success: the “mechanical harp”, which involved placing piano tines under the bridge to give it a unique resonance. “We did a lot of research before coming up with that idea. I needed something original to break into the market alongside Fender and Gibson,” says Godin.
Next, he tapped into the South American market with his Multiac line: big guitars with double acoustic chambers and nylon strings. “I started when Latin music was first being exported. It’s my biggest worldwide hit. In Brazil they’re crazy about them,” he says.
“Our success stems from research and design. I’ve been meeting musicians around the world for thirty years now. I listen to them and translate their ideas into cutting-edge products using high quality woods. It’s integration that lets us do that. Unlike a lot of brands, we control the entire manufacturing chain up until distribution,” explains the entrepreneur.
A self-taught luthier, Godin started out modifying guitars to adapt them to the new sounds of the 1960s in a small shop on St-Hubert street in Montreal. Today, he sells 200,000 guitars a year in 65 countries, with 250 different models available.
“We’re not a multinational but we act like one, since we export 95% of our production,” he says.
That’s where the financial complexity comes in. In fact, unlike a big industrial company that makes a few big shipments to a handful of customers, Godin reps sell small quantities to thousands of tiny retailers. That only complicates matters.
“When I met with the National Bank 20 years ago, they believed in me right away. They knew nothing about my industry and they made the effort to adapt. They have huge experience in currencies, transfers and international markets,” says Godin.
But Godin doesn’t have to worry about that kind of thing anymore. His two sons have taken over the day-to-day management of the company (they also have guitar lines named after them).
“For 15 years now I’ve had no official function, but I’m still everywhere,” Godin says. “That kind of freedom lets me be there at opportune moments, without the administrative ball and chain. You have to delegate as you go. It’s a huge sacrifice every time, but a business has to end up managing itself.”
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